UTMB. A four-letter acronym that resonates with every ultra runner the world over. Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc to give it its full name is the pinnacle of long-distance running, the big show, the big dance, the big everything. A 105-mile classic around western Europe’s highest peak, it attracts attention like no other off-road running race on the planet. Every year, tens of thousands throng to its start/finish in Chamonix, France, to either compete, spectate or simply immerse themselves in the grandeur.
For those lucky enough to be toeing the start line, what lies ahead is a brutal course notorious for chewing up and spitting out anyone unprepared, uncommitted or unwilling to push through the inevitable pain. One runner who knows how to survive the UTMB is Damian Hall, who last year improved on his 2015 result (31st) to place inside the top-20 with a time of 25hrs 12mins. He’ll be back for more again this year, and in advance has prepared this special UTMB survival guide:
UTMB isn’t like your standard 100-mile race. 10,300m of ascent – Mt Everest is ‘only’ 8,848m – and, more punishingly, the same amount of descent soon makes you feel like the Alps are on a mean and personal mission to destroy your quads. You need strong legs. Don’t live near gradient? Squats, lunges, the dreadmill, weight-vest hikes, visits to lumpy places, and regularly battering your quads with a sledgehammer, are all your friends (some methods are better than others).
A walk in the park
All that said, it’s kind of a walk in the park. UTMB is about 40% a hiking race and you only need to go at 2.28 miles per hour to get round inside the cut-off time (the average walking pace is deemed to be about 3mph, albeit on the flat). But it’s going to be somewhere between 10 and 46 hours of steep uphill yomping. You’re going to have a sore backside and some very angry glutes. So in a nutshell, the uphills go on forever and the downhills hurt like hell. And there aren’t many flat bits.
Ultras are often called eating competitions and where better to chow down than France? Sadly there are no frog’s legs or snails at the aid stations, but there’s plenty of cheese, meat, noodle soup and fruit cake. The secret to a good 100-miler is to be constantly stuffing your cakehole. When everything solid seems disgusting, liquid calories can come to your rescue.
With 2,300 runners, UTMB’s trails are busier than most ultras. But it’s the crowds who line much of the route who are there to support you in your hour(s) of need. Get used to cries of “Bravo!”, “Bon courage!” and “Allez, allez, allez!” I only got a grade E for GCSE French, but I think that last one means “Get a move on!”
The kit list is long and strict. Great news for the gramme-counting gear geeks among us, who get way too excited about waterproof jackets that weigh just 108g (ahem). Or better still, waterproof trousers that weigh just 86g (I’m taking two pairs to account for both ‘running trousers’ and ‘waterproof trousers.’) Or the giddying realisation you can get all of your mandatory kit into the stripped-back version of the ALL TERRAIN PRO VEST. Woo! As for shoes, I’ll either wear the new TRAILROC 285, which has the added underfoot protection, or TRAILTALON 275, which I wore last year and I love.
The hare or the tortoise?
As with any race distance, pacing is critical. But even more so in the UTMB, because get it wrong and you might be stuck with that painful mental truth and physical ramifications for many long hours. It’s your slowest pace, not your fastest, that’s the most important. And those who slow the least, tend to have the best race. That’s all more easily said than done though.
It’s plain mental
Even if you have sufficiently strong quads, pace it perfectly and eat your weight in cheese, it might not be enough. It’s not the size of your muscles that’ll get your round the loop of Mont Blanc, but rather the size of your willpower. When everything’s hurting and you realise you’re going to finish 10 hours slower than you announced on Facebook, you’ll need to know your why. Why are you even doing this? For me, I want another magical finish with my kids. And a better finishers’ gilet than the last two years. I’m owed a good gilet. Or at least one that fits. Head to the bottom of this blog post to see some of my own social media announcements (no time expectations revealed).
Listen to T’Pau
Be ready to suffer. Even if you’ve trained like a mountain goat, running up and down monstrous hills all day hurts. When the door to the hurt locker swings open, I treat myself by sticking my earphones in. I’m a classic Britpop boy, but the defeatist, self-pitying anthems of the The Smiths, Radiohead and The National are more likely to make me sit down and sob than tap into my competitive edge. So instead my iPod shuffle has some proper cheesy tat on it…. Eye Of The Tiger, Chariots of Fire and T’Pau. Phil Collins? Ahaha, my critical faculties haven’t completely abandoned me! Okay, yes, Collins is on there too. Ahem.
Adapt and overcome
The best ultra runners are adaptable. You need to accept not everything will go as planned. Crazy things will happen and you need to embrace it (like Jasmin Paris – 6th – and Nicky Spinks – 12th – did last year, see video below). Also, when you’re in the hurt locker (and Phil Collins somehow isn’t working for you anymore), remember how lucky you are to be doing this. Many people would love to be running UTMB but aren’t as fortunate. Try to show gratitude to all the amazing people working on the race and supporting on route. Remember, you wanted to do this. And you paid good money for it. You idiot.
* 2017’s UTMB race starts at 5pm (GMT) on Friday 1st September and can be followed live.
* We will be present at the UTMB festival from Tuesday 29th August onwards and have many exciting activities planned. On that Tuesday, at 6pm, brand ambassadors including Nicky Spinks (Double Bob Graham Round record holder), Sebastien Cornette, Tom Payn and Germain Grangier (2017 Transrockies Run mixed pair category winner) will lead a run from the inov-8 booth which will allow runners of all abilities the chance to test drive our TRAILROC and TRAILTALON shoes. We’ll also have a biomechanics expert there to offer advice and tips on finding the perfect running shoes.
* Outdoor journalist and GB trail-ultra runner Damian Hall has finished on the podium at the Spine Race, Dragon’s Back Race (5th OA), the 2016 UK Trail Ultra Championships and set an FKT for the 630-mile South West Coast Path. He placed 19th at 2016’s UTMB. Twitter | Instagram | Website
Tweets from Damian during his UTMB training
— Damian Hall (@Damo_Hall) August 8, 2017
— Damian Hall (@Damo_Hall) August 15, 2017
— Damian Hall (@Damo_Hall) August 21, 2017